Dear David Coleman: My wife and I can't agree about some basics of how to parent our four-year-old daughter
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. I am a first-time father. My wife and I have a wonderful four-year-old daughter. However, we clash about a few important issues. Our daughter still sleeps full-time in our bed. She doesn't even have her own bed. She still uses baby bottles with rubber teats. She is still in pull-up nappies day and night. Is this normal? I feel that she should be in her own bed, toilet-trained and have moved on to cups or beakers. Is this something I am too conscious of, and am I over-thinking it all, or am I actually correct? I'll be guided by your opinion or advice.
David replies: There are very few absolute rights and wrongs in parenting. Mostly, parenting is about trying to be 'good enough', giving children a balance between firmness (in terms of limits and expectations) and kindness (in terms of responsiveness, warmth and understanding).
Once we are aiming to give our children that kind of balance, then the specifics of when they should (or should not) definitively be toilet-trained, sleeping independently and using certain utensils, are less important. That said, these are the issues that parents do need to find some kind of agreement on.
Let's start with the sleeping. Many children have insecurity about bedtimes and if sleeping with their parents makes for a better night's sleep, then I think that's fine. You can wean your child out of your bed at any stage once you feel they are ready. If you don't like having your daughter in your bed, for whatever reason, then do discuss your reasons why, as you'll come to resent her, and the disruption she may cause, if you just acquiesce.
Toilet-training, at age four, is a good idea if it hasn't already happened. At age four most children are availing of the free pre-school year and so are in a social situation where it'll be good for their independence and developmental growth to have control of their bowel and their bladder. Some pre-schools will require a child is toilet trained.
With the summer coming, it'll be an ideal opportunity to toilet train your daughter and prepare her for the greater independence of primary school, especially if she is starting this September.
When it comes to baby bottles, as your daughter still uses, the issue is probably back to comfort and security. Being able to suck on the bottle is probably very reassuring for your daughter and helps her to soothe herself at times of distress, or when she wants to settle - like at bedtimes.
So, in that regard, and potential dental issues aside, the bottle isn't a bad thing. Lots of children have 'blankies', soothers, particular stuffed toys or some other object that they rely on for that comfort and security to help them to wind down or soothe themselves.
The only issue from a psychological standpoint is about how a baby bottle might appear, socially. Like with the training pants, being reliant on a teated bottle for soothing may not go down too well with her peers and so, like with the toilet-training, it might be an idea to address this over the summer.
Aside from the specifics, the more central issue for your daughter, is the level of communication and agreement or disagreement that you and her mum have about how to parent her. This is also at the heart of all shared parenting. As the adults, we may have very different perspectives on what is best for our children. Usually this is based on our own experiences with other children, or from how we were parented.
Finding a successful strategy for discussing, negotiating and agreeing a shared approach to parenting is often the most difficult challenge for many parents. Indeed, in my own practice, working jointly with parents to help them to find a happy balance, or unified approach to parenting, is a significant bulk of the work I do.
So, as I said, you don't have to take my opinion on board, but perhaps it might be more fruitful for you and your wife to look at how you negotiate about these kinds of parenting decisions, so that you can reach agreement, or compromise, that feels like you are both winning.
Health & Living